This article appears in the July issue of Nautilus Telegraph magazine:
Comrades of the Great Bitter Lake
‘It is amazing that you could get so many people together to discuss an event that took place 50 years ago. I met three people who were with me at the time and had an interesting talk with them learning things that were unknown to me. It was very well done.’ Malcolm Morrison, Chief Officer, Agapenor, 1975
In June 1967, at the outbreak of the Six-Day War, 14 merchant ships were passing through the Suez Canal. As hostilities erupted, they were ordered to halt in the Great Bitter Lake. Although the war was brief, after it finished, the Egyptian government refused the ships permission to leave. Those ships were stranded in the Suez Canal for a full eight years, until June 1975. Over the period, 3,000 seafarers served on the trapped ships in the middle of a war zone, maintaining the vessels and protecting their precious cargos.
As I was researching my book about those ships, Stranded in the Six-Day War, I wondered what had happened to the seafarers. It occurred to me: why not organise a 50th anniversary reunion of the people who were stranded in the Great Bitter Lake? I approached Ben Whittaker at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and he was similarly enthusiastic about the idea of such a get-together. The museum generously agreed to host this anniversary event – almost 50 years to the day after the ships were stranded in the Six-Day War.
On 1 June, around 90 people gathered at the Merseyside Maritime Museum for the reunion. The mostly British seamen, one from Germany, and their guests, had travelled from across the UK and from Ireland, France, Germany, the Canary Islands, Panama and Thailand to be there.
The seafarers discussed their widely varying experiences at different times in the Great Bitter Lake. Some had experienced the shock of being stuck in the canal in June 1967. Peter Flack spoke of the day of the Israeli attack on Egypt, when Mirage jets emerged from the east, flying frighteningly close over the ships in the Suez Canal. He witnessed huge explosions as bombs decimated the Egyptian airfields.
Others were on board at the height of the Great Bitter Lake Association (GBLA), and had participated in the extraordinary range of social and sporting activities, including the weekly ‘church’ gatherings aboard the Nordwind, where people organised the exchange of supplies and services, upcoming sports fixtures, and had a drink or two. George Wharton was a keen athlete who took part in all the sports, including the GBLA Olympic Games in 1968, a spectacular fortnight of sailing, diving, sprinting, weightlifting and water-polo contests. A few, including Malcolm Morrison, had prepared the ships for departure in 1975 – a tough job without the fun and games enjoyed by the earlier crews.
A few seafarers who are no longer with us were represented by their wives and children. Wendy Hill and Penny Jamieson attended in memory of their father Captain Bryan Hill. He commanded the Melampus and Agapenor and subsequently wrote Postage Stamps of the Great Bitter Lake Association, a well-regarded book detailing the remarkable stamps produced by the Suez seafarers.
Some people had not met since they worked together on the ships 50 years ago, and there were emotional reunions as they rediscovered former shipmates. They swapped stories and showed photos, memorabilia, articles and letters they had kept safe to this day.
Comments like this one from Sean Dring, Able Seaman on the Port Invercargill in 1967, indicate the significance of the event:
I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for organising the reunion. Today I’ve met 14 of the people who were stranded with me in the Great Bitter Lake. Never since those events 50 years ago have I been able to discuss what it was like to be trapped in the Suez Canal with others who shared the experiences with me.
Stranded in the Six-Day War is available from www.cathsenker.co.uk
or (UK only) by posting a cheque for £12.50 incl P&P payable to Ms C R Senker with your name and address to: 4th Floor, 60 Lansdowne Place, Hove BN3 1FG, East Sussex